December 21, 2009


"To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering"

Recently I watched the film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (good movie, and the book is in my to be read pile), in which Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a significant plot point. I made a mental note to search for it at the library, and then went downstairs only to find it staring at me from my Dad’s bookcase. If that is not a sign to read the book, especially a book about the meaning of life, I don’t know what is.

Frankl’s book is many things in one: it is a historical account, philosophy book, theory of psychology, and memoir. He writes about his time in various concentration camps over three years during WWII, and how his experiences shaped and solidified his work as a psychologist and the theories he developed both before and after his imprisonment. As all works concerning the Holocaust do, Man’s Search for Meaning brings up many difficult questions. How can man be responsible for such horrible actions? How can what happened be explained or justified? How does one go through so much suffering and still survive? What is the purpose of all that suffering? Frankl provides a philosophical answer to these questions (at least, as much as they can be answered) by exploring how his and others’ experiences in concentration camps are proof that the human spirit can overcome anything.

Frankl’s existentialist philosophies unfold in the two parts of his book. In Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” he reflects on his own imprisonment and the development of the psychologies of his fellow prisoners. As with any kind of life, humans adapt to their surroundings, no matter how horrible they might be. Thus, there is a psychology and set of stages that accompany camp life, which he identifies through stories of his friends and fellow prisoners. Though they are often told as case studies and in an academic light, these stories are, of course, heartbreaking, – but also life affirming. It is the conclusion he comes to regarding the human spirit and its ability to endure and survive that shapes his philosophy, and subsequently his school of psychological thought. In looking at his own survival and that of those around him, he theorizes that the ability to endure and surpass great suffering is in the mind of the man, as long as he has decided that he has something to survive for. As a sort of summation of his theory, Frankl often quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

In the second part of his book, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” Frankl takes the theories he has put forth in Part One and uses them to shape an introduction to logotherapy, the school of psychological thought he founded. I’m no student of psychology and knew little of logotherapy before I read the book, but Frankl clearly and accessibly outlines his theories in his short introduction. Logotherapy exists on this premise that the most powerful and motivational force in human beings is the desire to find meaning to their lives. In terms of theories of psychology (especially Viennese ones), logotherapy differs from, say, psychoanalysis in that it looks towards the future rather than towards the past. In logotherapy, there is no examining of the effects of childhood traumas on the unconscious while lying on a couch; rather, neuroses are cured by putting the patient’s desires in context and righting them on the path towards finding their own meaning of life. It is clear why this sort of psychological theory developed in Frankl’s surroundings of great suffering. When horrifically stripped of literally everything – belongings, loved ones, basic human rights, often even hope – Frankl and many of his contemporaries still endured. All they had to live for was the idea of their future, and their desire to ascribe meaning to all their suffering; and yet, it was this that kept them alive.

I’m sure you’re thinking through all this (as I was), What is the meaning of life? Well, Frankl contends that this question in its abstract and general terms cannot be answered. Rather, the meaning of life is constantly changing for each unique person in every unique situation he is in. It is life that asks us for meaning, not the other way around. We must rise to what life brings us, and justify our existence by succeeding with what we are given. (I suspect whoever first said the phrase ‘when life gives you lemons…’ was a logotherapist.) I absolutely understand why Frankl’s book is not only one of the most important works of psychiatric literature, but why it is still consistently read and loved by so many people. Man’s Search for Meaning is the sort of book that you always want to have nearby as a reminder of why and how to keep going, particularly when going through hard times. I am very grateful to Brief Interviews..., and my Dad's library, for bringing it to me.

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